TWIBH: October 30, 1974 — Ali vs. Foreman
In 1974, Big George Foreman reigned supreme. The previous year he had astonished the boxing world with the suddenness and savagery of his demolition of Joe Frazier, knocking Smokin’ Joe to the canvas six times in less than two rounds and putting the fear of God into every heavyweight contender. His first defense was a “gimme,” a one round blowout of Jose Roman, but his next fight in March of ’74 was viewed as a stern test, a showdown with Ken Norton who had proved his mettle in two tough battles with Muhammad Ali. If anyone had any lingering doubts about the sheer potency of Foreman’s punch, they were erased once the formidable, 215 pound Norton turned into a rag doll after absorbing a few of Big George’s uppercuts and haymakers. The fight ended in the second making it the eighth bout in a row, and the eleventh out of his last twelve, to be decided by Foreman in either the first or second round. The man was unstoppable, a destructive force of immense power.
As revered as Muhammad Ali is, it is impossible for him to receive too much credit for what he accomplished in Zaire on October 30th, 1974. Foreman was a wrecking machine, the most powerful knockout puncher since Joe Louis, younger, stronger, and a solid 3 to 1 favourite. And yet Ali completely outclassed him, reducing him in the last few rounds to a stumbling, bumbling amateur, reaching in vain for Ali’s head as if to hold him still for one second as Ali, leaning back on the ropes, clipped him with staccato-like counter shots, harmless-looking blows, but on a tired Foreman, increasingly effective. Much has been made of the final right hand which produced the knockout in the eighth round, but in fact it was the cumulative effect of all the punches before it, and Ali’s astonishing display of boxing acumen, which truly determined the outcome. Along with his dismantling of Sonny Liston ten years before, this was, in terms of skill and boxing expertise, Muhammad Ali’s finest ring performance.
It should now be mandatory for anyone composing a list of the biggest myths in boxing to install in the top five — in addition to Joe Louis needing a knockout to win his first bout with Billy Conn and Roy Jones Jr. being an all-time great — Foreman’s loss to Ali being the result of the vaunted “Rope-a-Dope” strategy. In this writer’s opinion, few boxing matches are as misunderstood as the “Rumble in the Jungle.” The truly sad thing is that Ali himself misinterpreted his accomplishment, leading to all kinds of unnecessary punishment in the years subsequent to his triumph in Zaire.
Simply put, Ali did not just lie on the ropes and let Foreman punch himself out. This tactic alone was not enough and on its own would have been suicidal against a puncher like Foreman. In Ali’s dressing room just before the fight, with almost everyone anticipating a Foreman victory, someone reached out for the challenger’s hand and wished him “Good luck.”
“Luck?” sneered Ali. “No, man — skill!”
And it was Ali’s boxing skill that defeated Big George. The myth of the fight says otherwise. It insists Ali lost almost every minute of the fight as he stood there and absorbed Foreman’s power shots before the champion finally succumbed to exhaustion. The truth is Ali won as many as six of the completed seven rounds as he put on a clinic in advanced boxing technique, using excellent defense, superior hand-speed, clinches, feints, perfectly timed counter-punches, and just about every trick in the book to neutralize Foreman’s advantages in strength and power. He pasted the champion with right hand leads in the first round and staggered Foreman in the third, fourth and fifth with one-two combinations or right hands. Meanwhile, most of Foreman’s bombs missed their target or were blocked by Ali.
Only in the fifth round did Ali actually do what the legend would have us believe he did for the entire fight: cover up on the ropes and absorb punishment. By that point, Foreman was tired and his punches lacked snap; Ali was simply draining the champion’s gas tank along with what was left of his confidence. Ali’s fans screamed themselves hoarse, exhorting him to get off the ropes but, despite appearances, he remained in complete control. Most of Foreman’s shots were blocked by Ali’s arms or gloves and when the champion did manage to land a blow to the head, Ali would taunt Foreman by pausing to ask, like an oenophile comparing vintages, if that was George’s best.
With 30 seconds left in the round and the assembled crowd fearing Ali hurt and on the cusp of oblivion, The Greatest came to life, peppering Foreman with those light, quick blows before straightening him up with a pair of sharp jabs and then, with the crowd going berserk, landing five hard counter right hands as Foreman flailed about. Just before the bell rang Ali had Foreman in a headlock and over the champion’s back, with the stadium in bedlam, he winked and stuck his tongue out at Joe Frazier, his old nemesis, who had picked Foreman to win and now sat ringside as a broadcast commentator, hardly believing what he was seeing.
At that moment, the fight was over, the rest mere aftermath. Foreman finally collapsed in the eighth and Ali, to the astonishment of everyone, had regained the title stripped from him for his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War. Under a pale African moon, with a massive throng chanting “Ali Bomaye!”, and millions more watching on closed-circuit television, it was a night unlike any other in boxing history.
Sadly, with the passing years Ali’s great triumph has been reduced to little more than a much-used sports cliché. The champion himself is partly responsible for this. In the title defenses which followed, Ali often reverted to a masochistic parody of his Zaire performance, lying on the ropes and allowing fighters to pound away at him. He had the heart and iron chin to absorb the punishment and keep fighting, but the cost in later years would prove tragic. But at least we can look back and appreciate anew the true brilliance of Ali’s performance against Foreman, knowing that it involved far more than loose ropes and a strategy born out of desperation, but also the courage and skill of a truly great fighter.
– Michael Carbert